After reading Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel for the first time at the age of 29, and enjoying it very much, one of my first thoughts was that I should have known about and read this jewel of a novel before. It occurred to me that someone – a professor, a friend, a relative, a teacher – should have told me about this book. Or that I at least should have seen it displayed prominently in the literature section of bookstores. I had grown up in the US, though, where Laurence’s work was little known or appreciated, and not in Canada, where every Grade 12 student (17-18 year old) reads this work. I later asked several friends and colleagues if they knew of this work. But not one of them did. That was the first time I clearly remember feeling that I had really missed out somehow in having discovered a novel “late”. One could argue of course, that the best time to read this novel, about a very elderly woman looking back on her life, is not when one is younger than 29, but much much older. And yet, the feeling of loss bothered me on and off for a few days.
Now, the point I am getting at here is not the one you may be expecting: that readers routinely miss out on the crème de la crème of other nations’ literary works. I know this is certainly true. Unless we seek out literature from diverse locales, we don’t have a wide range of international literary works hovering before us in bookstores, online “customers who bought this item also bought”s and such like. Agreed. But what I am getting at is something much more disturbing to individuals who feel that they know themselves and their own likes and dislikes. The novel was so powerful, I thought, that perhaps I might have made different choices, however minor, if I had experienced this moving and heartbreaking novel earlier. Perhaps I might have interacted differently on some occasions in interpersonal encounters. The work was that enlightening for me.
And yet, of course, had I come across the novel when I was younger, say, 18, would I have even picked it up? If I had read the back cover and thought “not for me”, that might have made the likelihood greater that when I picked it up again at 29, I would immediately have drawn on my memory of having come across it and not liking it, and to my not having fully reconsidered it as a viably interesting novel, to me, at least. Or, what if I had read it at age 18 and not liked it? Does that mean that I must have been a very different person from the person I am now? Perhaps even different in some small ways, because I didn’t like it? Or what if I had read it and loved it at age 18, but derived a very different set of inferences about my own life from it than I would have had by first reading it at age 29, and either found it not to be so enriching for me personally, but perhaps just a good read that I might or might not feel compelled to tell friends about? Was I, in part, able to derive so much pleasure from this novel at age 29 because I had never even heard of it before? If I read it again when I am very old, will I enjoy it more as my age approaches that of the main character? Was there something about being 29 that made me feel the loss that I might not have felt at age 50? I don’t want to get tedious here, but I believe that these are important kinds of questions, if we want to understand what it is exactly that reading fiction does to us and for us.
With his crystal clear prose and fine plugged-in sense of humor, social psychologist Daniel Gilbert offers us a way to think about these questions in his book Stumbling on Happiness (2006). For Gilbert, our past selves and our future selves ARE different selves. They are not the present selves we are experiencing in this moment except with a twist, a futury kind of twist for the self to come, or with a formerish nuance for the self that was. We can use no algorithm or computations to get from now to what is to be, nor to get from what is to what was. He argues that we think we will be happy about an event in the future, because when we imagine ourselves into that future we are extremely limited by our inherent “presentism” (p. 109). We cannot put into the future-state algorithm things of which we are unaware in the present; nor can we see ourselves as being anything other than rather unique, not persons in the heart of the bell curve but rather located in the tails somehow. Whereas, by definition, the great majority of us were, are, and will be in the curve of the bell curve in the great majority of measurable qualities that one can think of. Because of these cognitive biases, among others, we find ourselves unable to successfully predict what will make us happy in the future, and unable to accurately remember what made us happy in the past. We look at the causes of present happiness of others as not being relevant to our own happiness in the future, whereas, according to Gilbert, that is probably our best model for such predictions.
Now, if I had been aware of the research that Gilbert draws upon, I might have avoided thinking of what my future and past selves might or might not have enjoyed, and focused instead on how my 18-year-old female contemporaries were responding to the novel. Of course, it might have been best not to survey grade 12 students who were required to read the novel, as that requirement itself can greatly skew reader response. Instead, I should have asked as large a sample as possible of 18-year-old women how they felt after reading Laurence’s novel. That would have given me the greatest likelihood of getting at how I might have responded back when, which in turn might have helped me work through that sense of loss, drawing on the experience of current others as a model for my past self, instead of on my present self as a model for my past self.
It would be interesting to hear from our readers about their experiences of feeling that they had encountered a novel, short story, or movie at the “wrong” time in life, or perhaps if not the “wrong” time, maybe just at a “non-optimal” time? What was the work? Why do you feel that it was the right work but at the wrong time?
Gilbert, Daniel. (2006). Stumbling on Happiness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.